Victims No Longer: Spain’s Anti-Eviction Movement

The Movement of Mortgage Victims is one of Spain’s strongest movements. Carlos Delclós talks to PAH organizer Elvi Mármol about the key to their success – Published on Roarmag.org, by Carlos Delclós, December 20, 2013.

The story of Spain’s economic, social and political crisis is one about property, need and value. And at the heart of that story lies a question that is familiar to the point of cliché: what makes a house a home? It may sound trivial, but in a country where families are sleeping in the street, entire building blocks are devoid of residents, and housing remains out of reach for major swathes of the population (despite the ubiquity of “For Sale” signs in the urban landscape), it is a question that remains largely unanswered by policymakers.  

For over four years, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH or “Mortgage Victims’ Platform”, in English) have pursued a simple and poetic response to this question: people living together, for one another. Their campaign for mutual aid, solidarity and civil disobedience strike at the very core of Spain’s power structure, and despite an often overwhelming institutional blockade, they have received the support of up to 90% of the population.

For insight into the PAH’s spectacular support, radically transformative praxis and the institutional challenges they face, I recently spoke with Elvi Mármol, a PAH activist from the city of Sabadell, just north of Barcelona. Though she worked for several years as an accountant, today she is a self-employed sales representative. This, she says, gives her a considerable amount of time to dedicate to the PAH. She is a member of PAH Sabadell’s Cases Committee and the community manager for their social networks, as well as a member of the Collective Bargaining and International Committees for PAH Catalonia … //

… What is the relationship between the PAH and the police?

  • EM: The relationship with Spain’s various police forces changes according to each city. In Sabadell, the Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra have been the protagonists in a number of horrific episodes. A couple of years ago, after an action on Three Kings’ Day in which we went from bank to bank leaving bags of charcoal, they confronted a number of activists and injured a minor. Just a few months ago, when we occupied a large building block to relocate some evicted families, they wanted to break through the 200 people blocking the doorway. One of our lawyers told the unit that they could not enter without a warrant and the next day the Mossos accused her and two activists of resistance. Of course, the judge later absolved them of those charges.
  • Very soon, the government will enact their reform of the penal code and although we know that what they have presented is not the definitive version, it is very clear that the changes are intended to impede our protests. For example, blocking an eviction or carrying out an escrache (where we single out politicians who are against reforming the Spanish mortgage law in favor of people) can be fined anywhere between €1.000 and €30.000. Assisting migrants with expired residence permits will be criminalized. Passive resistance to an officer’s aggressions can be treated as “threatening authority”, which can be penalized with two to four years of prison. These measures will be extremely tough and will certainly punish solidarity and working class people.

What kind of tactics and strategies do the PAH engage in and why?

  • EM: Perhaps our best-known campaign is Stop Evictions, inspired by Lluis from La Bisbal who, upon receiving his eviction notice, went to an assembly and said he was not about to leave his home. He asked for help and found it. In November of 2010, more than 50 people stood outside his home and stopped the judicial team and the Catalan police from carrying out the eviction. The eviction has been stopped four times since then and today, the case has been filed away, and he and his son Lloid remain in their homes. To this day, we have stopped over 800 evictions.
  • After that, we launched a campaign promoting a piece of Citizen Initiated Legislation intended to change Spain’s archaic mortgage law. Despite gathering 1.4 million signatures, the Popular Party rejected it, which gave way to our current campaign, known as the Obra Social (a play on words using the term used by Spanish banks to refer to their Corporate Responsibility programs, and literally translates as “social work”). This campaign is more revolutionary and less reformist than the previous ones, since it involves squatting housing blocks owned by financial firms and giving them to evicted families.
  • Based on my own experience, as a member of PAH Sabadell I can say that ours is currently one of the strongest PAH groups. We’ve squatted three buildings through our Obra Social campaign, we have fought more broadly for the right to decent housing than other group, since we also help tenants and not just mortgage holders. We organize workshops for individual squatters and carried out the longest bank occupation in the PAH’s history, which lasted four days and three nights at the office of the Unnim, a subsidiary of BBVA.

Do you see your tactics as part of longer-term politics?

  • EM: I think that getting banks to declare mortgages as non-recourse debts, stopping evictions and obtaining reduced rent through social housing are some of the small victories that have made us strong and differentiate us from other social movements today. I would say that our tactics and strategies are mostly short-term and consist of establishing goals that are attainable in terms of their time-frame and the energy they require. These short-term, tangible successes lead people to go from being dejected and demoralized to being empowered and making an impact in their communities, in relatively little time. They also help us keep the movement visible, reach more people and continue to question politicians and bankers about changing the law.
  • At the same time, our assemblies assure that we are always learning from and training one another, so that we never lose the essence of what makes the PAH so important, which is the people who participate in the movement. Without a doubt, the PAH’s greatest success has been to empower people. These are men and women who at one point were sold on the idea that they were part of a middle class, and now realize that they are part of a much larger majority, which is the working class. One day they were just a number in the labor force and now, thanks to the PAH, they are activists who not only defend the right to decent housing but work with militants they have met from other movements to weave the social fabric of their own communities

What have been the keys to success of the movement so far?

  • EM: The PAH’s success lies in every one of its local assemblies. People arrive at those assemblies looking for a solution to their individual situation, but they quickly realize that through solidarity and civil disobedience, not only can they find solutions to their problems, but also that they are part of a community that is capable of large scale success.
  • The PAH today is Spain’s most important social movement, but it’s neither perfect nor a panacea to all of the country’s ills. We do a lot of things that were being done many years before, in the neighborhood movements, the squatters’ movements and so on. The platform was born at the right place at the right time, and it has understood how to learn, grow and expand without losing its essence. Perhaps with time, we will be able to bring together all of the different social struggles taking place at this moment in history.

(full interview text).


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